Six Months Into A Solo Criminal Law Practice
by Jamison Koehler on May 17, 2010
Mark Bennett and Brian Tannebaum both announced last week that they have been practicing criminal law for 15 years. While I have nowhere close to this level of experience, I recently celebrated an anniversary of my own. As of this past month, it has been six months since I opened my D.C. law office and one month since I began practice in Arlington, Virginia. Below are some preliminary thoughts on this experience.
Getting Started: There are a number of books out there on starting your own law practice, including Jay Foonberg’s How to Start and Build a Law Practice and K. William Gibson’s Flying Solo: A Survival Guide to the Solo and Small Firm Lawyer. The book I used – and the book I swear by – is Carolyn Elefant’s Solo By Choice: How To Be The Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be.
Elefant opens her book with an inspirational chapter describing six reasons to go solo (autonomy, practical experience, feel like a lawyer, work flexibility, owning and not loaning your talent, and career satisfaction). She discusses a number of potential challenges facing a lawyer considering this decision (e.g., whether you should go solo right out of law school, how to assure a smooth transition if you are leaving another firm). The bulk of her book is then devoted to very thorough, practical, and realistic advice on handling every challenge that could confront a new practitioner.
A dog-eared copy of Solo By Choice sits on my desk as I write this. I followed Elefant’s advice in every respect. I supplemented this information with advice I received from other practitioners, bloggers, and Solosez, the ABA listserv devoted to solo practitioners. My practice is living proof that these things work. You can in fact figure things out. Networking does lead to referrals. Clients do come in the door.
Clients: I have had only one client – my very first client – who hasn’t paid me in full. (And I won his case, too.) While I eventually forgave the debt, I learned from that experience not to agree to any more payment plans. With the exception of one other client I decided to fire, I have liked all my clients. They are good people who for whatever reason have found themselves in a difficult situation. With my background as a public defender, it has been gratifying to represent people who appreciate my work on their behalf. I recently raised my rates and, to paraphrase Mark Bennett, the more money people pay me, the more they seem to like my work.
Advertising: I no longer do any paid advertising. I paid $147 a month for a couple of months to be featured on Avvo as an “Avvo Pro.” Over the same time period, I placed an ad in the Washington City Paper that appeared in both the print version and on-line. The investment generated a grand total of one telephone call from someone asking for legal assistance in a jurisdiction in which I am not licensed to practice. I have turned down what seems like a million telephone calls from legal referral organizations and search engine optimization firms. As Mirriam Seddiq complained in a recent blog post, my website and blog seem to be doing fine on their own.
Networking: Since I am not the most outgoing person in the world, I initially dreaded the thought of the amount of networking that would be required to get my practice off the ground. I dutifully scheduled lunches and get-togethers with other practitioners and I have attended numerous bar-related and other events. I have been surprised by how many friends I have made through this forced social interaction. That I have also gotten clients through this networking now seems like a welcome side benefit.
Blogging: I initially took up blogging because it was one of the things the “how-to” books recommended I do. I don’t know how much it has actually helped my practice, but I do know it has become one of my favorite things to do. I greatly appreciate the phone calls, emails, and comments I get from readers. Since I know from Google Analytics that a lot more people read the blog than comment, I hope to encourage more interaction with readers in the future.
Legal Research: While there are a lot of free legal research services out there, I am a traditionalist. I subscribe to a LexisNexis package providing me access to federal and state courts for D.C./Virginia/Maryland at a cost of $125 per month. I think it’s worth it.
Malpractice Insurance: I pay less than $100 a month for malpractice insurance I set up through the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Other: I share my wife’s spacious office in Georgetown, but do most of my work out of my home. I also meet many clients in the cafeteria of the D.C. Superior Court building. I use Fresh Books for my accounting but am thinking of switching to QuikBooks because that is what my wife and our accountant use. I use Efax for faxing, and I recently set up a system to accept Master Card and Visa through Law Charge.
I am happy to say that, benefitting from extremely low overhead, I covered my firm’s expenses for the coming year within a month or two of starting the firm. And while I will never be rich, I have been operating in the black for some time now. I enjoy taking on the clients and cases that appeal to me and turning down all the rest, a luxury I didn’t have as a public defender. I appreciate the flexibility. I haven’t missed a single one of my younger son’s sporting events at school, and I was able to take some time off last week to pick up my older son from college. Nobody cares what time I leave the office. I appreciate making all of my own decisions. I am accountable only to clients and the courts.
Last spring my wife and I were preparing to move to D.C. I had planned on opening my own practice had we stayed in Philadelphia, and our decision to move here just expedited that by a couple of years. I had already updated my resume and sent out some letters when I turned to my wife and said, hey, I’m too old for this. Why not work for the one person for whom my resume doesn’t matter, the one person who thinks I am just the greatest thing in the world? Unfortunately, she didn’t want to hire me. That’s when I decided to open my own practice.
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